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User Review:

ChatterBox FRS X2 Helmet Radios

   I've used two-way radios in my helmets since the early 1980's, when commercial helmet products were not available and had to be fabricated to work (see related link: install a helmet radio), so I am not a novice at helmet radio systems, and am not one to be easily overwhelmed by less than ideal solutions.

   Anyway, for our 10th anniversary (which happened very shortly after my other half learned to ride a motorcycle herself instead of riding on the back of mine), my other half decided to buy a couple ChatterBox FRS X2 radios for our helmets, so she could talk to me while riding. This was my first exposure to the ChatterBox brand beyond seeing ads and looking at the website.

Here are my unbiased (or very biased?) impressions:

Transmission Distance: Good. Better than many of the other solutions I've used.
Transmission Clarity: Poor, much worse than many of the solutions I've used. On par with WW2 fighter pilot systems.
Form Factor: Compact, helmet-mounted (or supposedly belt-mounted, but poorly designed for any place other than a helmet & I don't like the helmet mounting concept too much). After ten days straight of touring with it on the helmet: you need to know that it's not really designed for speeds over 100 mph (wind-blast on the helmet effects added drag on the side it's mounted on, building strain over time).
Microphone Quality: Reasonable to poor, not perfect nor even on-par with the better stuff on the phone market. Could be better designed for external noise suppression.
Speaker Quality: Crud, Crap. The only advantage is the form factor, being very thin, and that the system supports true stereo. A good walkman headset is infinitely better, as are the headset speaker's I've adapted on other systems from Motorola and even from Radio Shack.
Integration with other devices: Quite advanced and superb, except that the unit mounting location on the helmet makes it a cabling mess to patch in other things (you start looking like robocop).
VOX Circuitry: Multi-range (truly variable), but you have to really work to find a good setting at any given speed -- and expect to yell. VOX system cuts out too quickly (should have a 1.5 second open-silent setting to prevent it from shutting down between words or sentences).
PTT implimentation: Buttons work wonderfully unless soaked by rain, but the locations are often problematic for beginning users. The system comes with two Push To Talk (PTT) buttons -- one on the radio, requiring you move your hand to your helmet and hit the front-most button on the side, and a second one on an extension cable designed to be handle-bar mounted (takes some practice and trial-and-error to figure out exactly where functions best). The handle-bar mounted one can be problematic for riders with smaller hands (such as females with glove size small).
Battery implimentation: Mix-and-match (good and bad). Unit uses a rechargable battery, but it's only designed to be charged while in the unit, and is a non-standard size, meaning that you can't charge batteries outside the unit and can't buy alkaline replacements for when you're on the road and your battery goes dead. On the other hand, the battery life when the batteries are new is exceptionally good, lasting about 20 to 35 hours of ride time (several days of touring) before going dead.
Installation: Fits HJC well (pre-made sockets for the speakers in the lining). Doesn't fit Nolan N100/N100E series helmets at all (neither the open face kit nor the full face kit can handle the microphone location properly). Does not fit any swing-open full-face helmets as far as I can tell (tried a couple different makes).
Build Quality: Above average to excellent. While it can't take a hard driving rain for extended periods of time at highway speeds, it can be dried out readily enough. And it took a hard spill with my other half at about 15 mph without any serious consequences in it's operation.

Ready for the lambasting? Here goes:

Biggest Complaint:
The form factor/user interface/location sucks.
The VOX and PTT implimentations are poorly thought out.

   All the radio's I have had or modified for use in the past were small packages (think an iPod or a pack-of-cards sized package) that you carried in your shirt, jacket or on your belt, and which had the PTT button as a large button on the front of them, so you just pushed into your chest to trigger the talking circuit (through your clothes, with gloves on, worked great). My past radios were mounted to the rider, a single cable snaked from inside your clothes (or outside them) to a jack on the helmet itself.
   In the case of the ChatterBox, the radio mounts on one side of your helmet (where it induces drag, wind-resistance at speed, and makes the controls about as far away from your hands as they can be and still be reachable -- and outside your range of view unless you remove your helmet!). The idea of lashing your helmet to your handlebars (via the PTT remote) is just plain stupid, although I will grant that it would seem designed to pull away easily enough (still not as easily as having a snap-away-jack at the helmet). The mike & speaker cabling should have been combined into a single pigtail that passed out of the helmet instead of having three separate cables merge into a single adaptor external to the helmet. Placing the radio on the helmet, where in an accident scenario it can readily grab something (& thus cause the head to rotate forcefully) is also quite stupid. Now that I've done a ten day stretch of straight touring, I can say that at high speeds for extended times (over 90 mph), my neck was starting to be sore (to the left side) from the unbalancing of my helmet. It's almost enough to make me want to start a rival firm.
   Oh, yeah, and neither the open-face kit nor the full face kit work with the Nolan N100, N100E series helmets properly, and I suspect will not work with any flip-open full face helmets I've examined (because the mike boom is on the external side of the mounting bracket).

The pricing sucks.
   You can pick up a pair of Motorola FRS radios, a pair of headsets, rechargable batteries and twin-unit charger for about $120 (add another $20 in supplies to install it in the helmet -- soldering gun, solder, etc). Or you can get two ChatterBox FRS X2 units for about $420 - $480 if you shop around. Gee, that's quite a bit of difference, isn't it? Hell, if your group uses cell-phones anyway, you could get NexTel's services and a headset and skip the whole buy-a-radio step (mix the phone and the radio in the same unit, and just wire the mike/speaker to the helmet). I will grant that the ChatterBox permits you to hook up both a cell-phone and an external stereo music source (FM radio or MP3 player), but then you're running a nest of wires from your helmet again...
Finally, the replacement headsets:
$20 - $25 for anyone else's phones/walkie-talkies;
$65 - $80 for ChatterBox.

Battery Recharging and Replacements.
   The ChatterBox uses a hand-held phone battery that is rechargable. I give them brownie points for including the rechargable battery. Then I subtract off those same points again for not using rechargable standard sized batteries (such as a couple double-A, A, or even C-sized rechargable batteries), where you could easily keep a recharger running with the spares all the time (the existing system requires that you plug in the actual radio to recharge it -- no provision for charging the battery outside the unit). Also, using a non-standard size means that you can't walk into a grocery store while on the road and buy traditional alkaline replacements for single-use when you're away from a charger. Stupid implimentation of a great idea. At least they have an exceptionally good battery life if conditioned at the outset per the manufacturer's instructions.

Sound Quality on Transmission (X-mit).
   The ChatterBox's mike's dynamic range and tonal qualities are about the same level of technology used by the US Army Air Corp during world war 2 for it's fighter pilots. Fun if you want to drive around sounding just like a pilot ("Roger, one-niner, will turn ninety and approach I-75 north for take-off"). The speakers are a bit tinny, too. Personally, I think they really need to figure out how to get a throat-mike integrated into the package, one that picks up by conduction instead (because their existing mike just doesn't do it well above certain speeds).

VOX and PTT implimentations.
   OK, the most critical function of a motorcycle helmet walkie-talkie system is how and when it opens the microphone. This is why I am dedicating yet another paragraph to the subject of the VOX and PTT (although I already covered it above). The PTT button on the unit itself is poorly placed, and the idea of being corded to the handlebars is, while convenient, in my mind, moronic. Seriously, there are better ways... If you're going to bother putting the PTT button on the bike itself, then they should have designed the whole unit to go on the bike (where you could see the display -- imagine that concept!). Someone needs to build an armpit PTT button... or one that triggers by lifting a finger or pushing a finger-tip down in a certain way, as in PTT gloves(?)
   The VOX implimentation really needs a delay added, because it takes too long to trigger and shuts down too fast (a second to two seconds of staying open after being triggered would be so much better than the 1/2 second it seems to be set to now). Either that, or play a little memory trick and store the microphone input from just before triggering the VOX in RAM and then delay the transmit a half second, so that when someone speaks via VOX, the first 1/2 word isn't chopped off as the unit decides whether to trigger or not.

Now for the good stuff...

The Unit Works WIthout User Tinkering.
   This may seem obvious, but never under-value the concept of a device that works without any tinkering really... Not everyone is a do-it-yourselfer (DIY), so it's a simple solution, albeit a pricy one.

Accepts multiple inputs well...
   Yes, you can plug in a cell phone, the speakers, the microphone, an MP3 player (or CD player or FM radio, etc) all at the same time, and it has the sense to over-ride the incoming signals in the right order (phone has highest priority, then transmissions from other helmet-radios, and finally the music). Is realistic to expect to talk on the phone at speed? Probably not -- ask me again when I've tried to make a call at 80 mph... I've heard from other riders that you have to slow down to around 30 or so to make or receive a phone call because of the wind noise generated to the other end (they'll hear you just like a world war 2 pilot, too -- no lying to your other half about the fact that you're out riding).

Temperature Resiliant...
   Now I've never had problems with any of the systems I've used -- in part because the radios were always at about the same operating temperature by virtue of being up against the rider's body. But realistically, most electronics that transmit shift their frequencies when hot by a few hertz, and most can't handle extreme temperatures (like in deserts or the Florida sunshine in mid-afternoon). Naturally, the placement on the side of the helmet increases the solar exposure the unit receives compared to an unit in a jacket or shirt, but it is rated to function up to 60° (C) weather (140° Fahrenheit for you and me in the USA).

Weather Resistant...
   They took some effort and time in figuring out how to make the jacks water resistant and including integrated rubber covers for the various jacks and buttons on the unit. The manufacturer isn't going to leave a huge legal liability loophole open and simply say it's weatherproof, but for the most part, it is... which is really critical given that it mounts to the helmet so stupidly... Having ridden through a day of crappy rain with them mounted on the helmets on one of our long travels, they took on quite a bit of water after a while. If they were inside our clothes, they wouldn't have been exposed to driving rain... so again, location of placement strikes me as poorly implimented.


Then I'd like to make a couple suggestions:
(A) Send me a nice fat check to reimburse us for the purchase of your units & a bit of hassle, and I'll take down this page, OR
(B) Better yet, work with me to design a better system and seed me with proto-types, plus get recognition...
   I realize that over 99% of your clients have never used a helmet radio system before, so they have no clue what the other possibilities are, but not everyone is clueless and as more users do continue to use them, they won't remain clueless. Improve or get surpassed.


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